'Cardinals' a Brilliant Simmering Puzzler

(Canada, 84 min.)
Dir. Aidan Shipley, Grayson Moore; Writ. Grayson Moore
Starring: Sheila McCarthy, Noah Reid, Katie Boland, Grace Glowicki, Peter MacNeill, Peter Spence
Sheila McCarthy stars in Cardinals
D Films
Sheila McCarthy gives the performance of her career in Cardinals. Is this really the same woman who was so effervescent and full of life in I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing? If McCarthy made audiences soar with Mermaids, she lets them feel the sharp pain of hitting rock bottom in Cardinals. Playing Valerie Walker, a suburban mother who returns home from prison after serving time for killing her neighbour in an alleged drunk driving incident, her subdued performance is a master class in restraint. I am in awe of her intensity and focus.

Valerie is a complicated character, seemingly resigned from life but not remotely remorseful for her crime. The film opens at the scene of the crime where Valerie sits in her car, which has clearly just encountered some sort of accident, and calmly, carefully responds to the situation by opening a Mickie, pouring it into a fountain pop cup, and gulping up the booze with a straw. Cut to several years later and Valerie emerges from the slammer with not a hint of the radiance that one expects in a McCarthy performance. Valerie looks as if she has had the life sucked out of her, yet she isn’t willing to quit. She moves back home, across the street from her victim’s house, and tries to have a fresh start.

Her parole requirements require AA meetings and sobriety. However, her first request upon returning home is to have a glass of wine. She insists that she isn’t an alcoholic and never was. The night of the incident seems to be a fluke in the life of a woman who was otherwise a model for humdrum suburban ordinariness.

Nobody in Cardinals, however, is as they seem. The victim’s son, Mark (Noah Reid), at first comes seeking answers and closures. It’s Valerie’s mistake, though, in thinking he comes offering forgiveness. Her daughter Eleanor (Katie Boland) plays the part of dutiful child, ready to assist her mother’s return to society, but she’s also eager to do the old suburban routine of acting as if nothing happened. The incident clearly makes her uncomfortable. Valerie’s other daughter, Zoe (Grace Glowicki), thinks they should all just move on and stay friendly with Mark as if their Valerie only borrowed his father’s ladder and failed to return it. This polite, neighbourly bunch holds a tricky web of secrets and lies that expose themselves slowly, methodically, and messily as the film culiminates to an unexpected finale.

Cardinals is a brilliantly plotted drama in which the characters unfold with delicate revelations. Newcomers Aidan Shipley and Grayson Moore deliver an enigmatic simmering puzzler driven by intriguing characters and deep performances. As the pieces fall into place, Cardinals shifts our perceptions of right and wrong, of victimhood and agency, and of innocence and justice. Everyone is in on the crime, but the web makes victims of them all, to an extent, as the strong ensemble creates complex characters in whom a viewer is equally invested despite shifting loyalties.

The central gear that turns everything, though, is McCarthy. Valerie challenges and surprises the viewer with her sombre sobriety. Even as the truths reveal themselves, McCarthy doesn’t let audiences see Valerie as being in the right or in the wrong. One watches her quiet, observant performance and knows that depite Valerie's hardened, joyless exterior, a good woman and mother lives inside. This character inhabits a spectrum of grays, evoked brilliantly in the film’s muted colour palettes, as she grasps the full scope of her crimes without an ounce of regret. The nice little lady across the street is not at all what she seems.

Cardinals opens Aug. 31 at TIFF Lightbox and hits iTunes day and date.

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